Early warning system for the Chucunaque river in Panama

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A shorter version of this lesson has been featured on the booklet produced by the MDG-F Environment and Climate Change window "Seeds of Knowledge - Contributing to Climate Change Solutions". - Read more about the booklet or download it in English / Spanish / French / Arabic.

Contents

Summary

The Chucunaque River basin is one of the country’s largest. It runs through some of Panama’s poorest regions. These two factors mean that the area is especially vulnerable to the effects of climate change - particularly drought and flooding.

The impacts of climate change are happening more frequently and with greater intensity. Indeed, in 2010 the 150,000 people living around Darién were struggling to survive the floods that washed away houses and animals and contaminated the drinking water. The flooding also forced the closure—for the first time in 21 years-of the Panama Canal.

To help prevent floods and/or reduce the damage caused by floods, the UN Joint Programme introduced the early warning system as well as a climate change monitoring system with the latest meteorological technology around the Chucunaque River basin, all of which helped to limit the impacts of the flooding on the local population.

The collaborative effort also led to the installation of radio equipment in key places that are often hit by flooding. The early warning system includes base radios; limnimetric scales and various accessories in order to monitor the river´s behavior/ patterns. In 3 communities of the upper basin of Chucunaque river limnimetric rules, solar panels and base stations were installed. When the river floods the inhabitants on the upper basin river can now alert the inhabitants living in the communities on the middle and lower river basin. An Early evacuation can also now be arranged on time following the plans prepared by the community and the activation of various emergency committees. However these successes required careful consideration in the design and implementation phases. We have several lessons learned as a result of our experience.

The Joint Programme had to consider a number of aspects from the outset. The basin areas of the river are not only remote, but access to some of them is very limited. Therefore strategic plans need to be sufficiently flexible to deal with unexpected variations and to better serve the needs of the communities and specific areas. Moreover, Panama has several indigenous communities living in these areas, so in implementing the Joint Programme respect for traditional knowledge was carefully considered. The empowerment of the project by the community was the key to its success. The early warning systems were installed in partnership with national institutions, UN agencies (e.g. agreement signed between SINAPROC and UNEP), academia (Universidad Tecnológica de Panama), local community leaders, leading institutions in the area, local authorities, as well as project beneficiaries.

As a result of all the aforementioned approaches and activities, in the flooding that took place in 2010 there was a smooth evacuation and no loss of lives. We believe this is the best ‘evaluation’ to show that the system has been implemented successfully and is able to function effectively. In sum, from the Joint Programme experience in Panama we drew the following conclusions:

  1. Projects or programs must be planned strategically according to the needs of the communities and in partnership with leading institutions in the area, local authorities as well as project beneficiaries.
  2. Projects or programs should be sufficiently flexible to deal with unexpected variations and to better serve the needs of the communities and specific areas
  3. Monitoring and following of UN Project guidelines is key for the project sustainability

Purpose of the activity

The main purpose of Early Warning Systems is to save lives through prevention. The aim is to prepare the communities, while benefiting from their traditional knowledge, in the use of the right technology and tools that would enable them to promote safety within the communities. In order to mitigate and manage natural disasters the dissemination and assimilation of these issues into their everyday social and cultural practices is key, as well as, the promotion of the communities’ traditional knowledge and the dialogue between popular and scientific knowledge. Considering the problems these vulnerable communities face, the challenge is to organize "Prevention" measures to the traditional way of life. This way they can cope with risk.

Original issue addressed by the activity

The Community El Salto within the indigenous territory Emberá has a historical record of recurrent flooding, the level of vulnerability is high in this area, and the damages caused by the previous flooding were critical. Considering the risk vulnerability in this area this community was chosen for the implementation of a pilot project on Risk Management.

Strategy / approach chosen to address the issue

At the community level, the strategy used to address disaster risks management associated with climate change, was to actively engage the community in their organization towards Risk Management, taking into account gender, traditional authorities, local authorities and population in general. Working with them, risk maps were developed. It was particularly important to train children and women on the use of the communication equipment, since in some cases it was installed at homes, so children and women, who usually spend more time at home, should be able to use the equipment and inform or alert SINAPROC and other communities in cases of danger. At the national/ regional level, the JP in association with ETESA (national institution in charge of monitoring the climate), installed meteorological stations and other high tech equipment in order to monitor the climate and prevent communities.

Implementation of the strategy / chosen approach

Through an inclusive and participatory workshop the following was achieved:

  1. Community awareness of existing vulnerabilities and safe areas
  2. Emergency plans and maps developed by the community
  3. Risk Management Committees Established
  4. Early warning system installed
  5. Basic First Aid training conducted, response issues, communications
  6. Community Equipment with essential response tools provided (kits, boards, megaphones, radio base, vests etc.)

Challenges and Innovations

Considering the problems these vulnerable communities face, the challenge was to organize "Prevention" measures according to the traditional way of life. A communication strategy was developed to encourage local participation and dialogue on climate change. In addition, information was simplified and translated into the three indigenous languages to increase the diffusion of the messages in the JP river basins. Moreover, rather than imposing a strictly “scientific” communication of climate change, the Joint Programme sought to interweave this thinking with the more traditional paradigms found in the indigenous communities.

In our experience, it was also found that in remote areas such as Darién radio communication is still the best source of information. The UN Joint Programme has made the most use of it. Thanks to the radio communication system, endangered communities can now be informed ahead of time on the cresting of the Chucunaque River.

Results and Impacts

During December 2010, after 15 days of strong rain, the river Chucunaque increased its normal levels, to those with no precedent, and took along houses and livelihoods of poor families in the region, many of which are indigenous communities.

The equipment acquired by the JP for the early warning system, and climate change monitoring system, in particular communication radios and limnimetric scales, were key in maintaining local communities informed during the disaster, communicating upstream with downstream communities and SINAPROC, and this made it also possible to have a timely evacuation, avoiding any loss of human lives. The communities of Wargandi Guna and Embera Wounaan, were able to put into action the security measures learned. They opened evacuation shelters; managed local resources and provided local aid productsduring the first 36 hours. With no doubt, the JP proved to be effective in developing this early warning system.

Evidence

  1. Emergency Operations Center Report (COE) - 2010 by the National Civil Protection System - December 2010 Flood
  2. Daily National News Papers-December 2010 Flood
  3. Community Emergency Plan "El Salto"
  4. "Strategy," Synthesis of Integrated Adaptation and mitigation to climate change in two priority watersheds
  5. JP Video: “What I grasp and what I see”

Next Steps

The Joint Programme has promoted the exchange of knowledge on the impacts of climate change and the solutions within smaller communities. It has led to the setting up of a climate change information network, and the installation of an early warning system.

The four points below suggest a way forward through the lessons learned:

  1. The development and dissemination of “Early Warning Systems Protocols in the area“becomes necessary.
  2. New risk-mapping should be developed in other watersheds in the region in partnership with national institutions; including academia (UTP was supporting the JP on this, as requested by UNEP through the signature of several agreements).
  3. Risk Management needs to be imbued in State Policy.
  4. The Early warning systems installed by the Programme in different communities should be monitored by all institutions involved. Periodic updates, particularly of the plans, training and drills in communities covered by the Programme are needed in order to assure the results sustainability.

Potential replication / application

The early warning system and community work could be taken as an example to be implemented in other communities.

The functionality and efficiency of this early warning system was tested during the floods in 2010. During the 2010 floods, the community organized evacuations to safer places and there were no lives lost.

The equipment acquired by the JP (including UNEP), for the early warning system, and climate change monitoring system, in particular communication radios and limnimetric scales, were key in maintaining local communities informed during the disaster, communicating upstream with downstream communities and SINAPROC, and this made it also possible to have a timely evacuation, avoiding any loss of human lives.

The satellite monitoring equipment of the hydrometeorological variables of the Climate Change Monitoring System, also acquired by UNEP and UNDP and transferred to ETESA (national institution in charge, among others, of monitoring the weather), have also been key in warning and monitoring the appearance of the cold fronts that are currently being faced, and with scientific, accurate and timely information, they have been able to activate the coordination mechanisms to address disasters of this magnitude, and they are being used by the Government of Panama.

From the Joint Programme experience in Panama we drew the following conclusions:

  1. Projects or programmes must be planned strategically according to the needs of the communities and in partnership with leading institutions in the area, local authorities as well as project beneficiaries.
  2. Projects or programmes should be sufficiently flexible to deal with unexpected variations and to better serve the needs of the communities and specific areas
  3. Monitoring and following of UN Project guidelines is key for the project sustainability

Recommendations

It is important to consider political changes that could affect monitoring the projects developed at the community level, which is why any programme must ensure the following:

  1. That each of the institutions involved monitors the early warning systems and shares information among them and with local authorities and communities.
  2. The empowerment of the project by the community, who need to be aware of the risks that are confronting them. They should be prepared to address these risks.
  3. Risk Management should be imbued in State Policy.
  4. There should be periodic updates, particularly of the plans, training and drills in communities covered by the Programme.
  5. Protocols for "Early Warning System" should be developed at country level.

Information products

  1. Emergency Operations Center Report (COE) - 2010 by the National Civil Protection System - December 2010 Flood
  2. Daily National News Papers-December 2010 Flood
  3. Community Emergency Plan "El Salto"
  4. "Strategy," Synthesis of Integrated Adaptation and mitigation to climate change in two priority watersheds
  5. JP Video: “What I grasp and what I see”

Final report (UTP-UNEP): Fortalecimiento de conocimientos en Sistemas de Información Geográfica, fortalecimiento de instituciones de gobierno, líderes comunitarios y autoridades locales y tradicionales, en temas de gestión de recursos hídricos, mapas de riesgo, control de fuentes de contaminación, saneamiento ambiental, programas de reciclaje y cambio climático.

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